Monday, February 26, 2007

What makes a new movement in Judaism acceptable?

I had not planned to opine about the YCT article in Yated but my last post and comments I made on Areivim got me into the subject. I am also working hard on a post on MN 3:23 about Iyov so this gives me a little diversion and an opportunity to set out my ideas.

The purpose of Torah and Mitzvot is to train us in Avodat Hashem and make us into people that can develop Ahavat Hashem. Ahavat Hashem is based on knowledge and synonymous with Yediat Hashem. To acquire the kind of knowledge that lets us have an understanding of HKBH we have to work on ourselves by being disciplined, moral, and ethical as enumerated in the Braitha of Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair that Ramchal based his Mesilat Yesharim on. The Torah and Mitzvot are the tools that we have, to attain these Midot.

For the Torah and Mitzvot to work in helping us fulfill the goal intended, it has to be tailored to each personality. Some people need clear delineations; others thrive on creativity and a certain amount of freedom. I personally feel stifled by minutiae but I know others who are lost without it. Some people feel imprisoned living in a very close community others would give their life for it. In other words there has to be a certain amount of leeway for Torah to allow for the different personalities. That explains the different groups within Halachik Judaism. Each works for a different type of person.

Of course not all members of a group are thinkers nor are all aware of what the goal is. Within each group there are those who work hard at growing in Yediat Hashem while others just go along because of communal pressure, feeling part of something, family or other reasons. That is the case with the Chassidim, where some are growing through the system while others just have the trappings. The same can be said about the Yeshivish crowd, the Dati Leumi, the Hungarian Ashkenaz, the Yekkes and the Modern Orthodox. They all have the same goal and probably the same percentage of real Ovdei Hashem. They just act differently outwardly but those that are serious in each group have the same goal, Yediat Hashem.

So what binds all these different groups? Nothing but Halacha. When I say Halacha I refer to Halacha leMa’aseh as it applies to Mitzvot Asseh and Lo Ta’asseh not Hashkafah matters. Even the Ikkarim just describe general rules without really settling exactly what they mean. Besides Metziut Hashem, the existence of God and Ychud Hashem, uniqueness of God, all the others are quite broad. Anthropomorphism according to Ra’avad is tolerable, exactly what is Avodah Zara depends on who one accepts Rambam or Ramban and that goes even more for the rest. We believe in Techyat Hametim, Nevuah, Mashiach and so on but exactly what each one means and defined depends on who you accept and understand. It is only the Halachot leMa’aseh as decided in the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi that are binding on all of us. Of course there are differences of opinion even there. Not all agree how the Talmud decided, but that is usually more in a detail than in the overall Halacha.

Halachot that are not in the Talmud are deduced from it and human intellect is so great that there is rarely agreement on anything when deduction is the method. Each competent Rav or Talmid Chacham can rule in those areas as long as it is an honest truth seeking approach. Rambam in his introduction to Mishne Torah states that it is his goal to summarize the decisions of the Talmud so that everyone will know how to follow it. He emphasizes that he restricts himself to those halachot while others are up to each Posek to decide.

Taking all this into account I believe that what defines a new movement in Judaism as legitimate is its adherence to Halacha as defined in the Talmud. As long as they adhere to this, their particular philosophy as to hashkafah is irrelevant. Adherence to Halacha demonstrates that their ultimate goal is Yediat Hashem and are therefore legitimate and should be viewed as just as genuine as any other movement. This has been proven historically. Shabbtai Tzvi had a huge following even among Gedolei Yisrael and might have become an acceptable sect if not for his decision to abolish Tisha Be’av. Chassidim on the other hand, though vilified and ostracized by the Gadol Hador, the Gra, they survived and indeed thrived because they were medakdek in Mitzvot and followed Halacha to a tee.

I therefore posit that if YCT is subservient to Halacha as defined above they are a legitimate movement, just as legitimate as Lakewood or any other such institution and movement. It is forbidden to look down on them, feel superior to them and even try to apologize for them as there is no need for such an apology. It is arrogance and a lack of understanding what Klal Yisrael is all about and what is the goal of Torah and Mitzvot.

I will finish with an anecdote. Rav Simcha Wasserman AH repeated it gleefully almost every time I met up with him. When he first went to the West Coast in the early Fifties at the behest of Rabbi Mendelowitz he decided to travel up and down the coast to acquaint himself with the different communities. A conservative Rabbi suggested that the orthodox are not tolerant enough. There are different ways for different people and Judaism should work for all. RSW told him that he was right and it is a Beferush verse in the torah. In Shemot 12:41 we read

מא וַיְהִי, מִקֵּץ שְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה, וְאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת, שָׁנָה; וַיְהִי, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, יָצְאוּ כָּל-צִבְאוֹת יְהוָה, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
41 And it came to pass at the end of four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the host of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt.

Why are the Jews depicted as Tzive’ot Hashem – God’s host or armies – plural? Why not the army of God? The answer is that armies are made up of different branches such as land forces, sea, air, marines and Special Forces. They all are just as important as the others are. They just serve different functions. The Rabbi was delighted asking R. Simcha what branch he perceived the Conservative where? R. Simcha with his usual twinkle said I told him “you are the deserters!”

It is not their theology that took Conservative Judaism out of the covenantal society, to paraphrase RYBS; it is their lack of commitment to Halacha. I am no historian but I would bet that originally the conservative movement, especially here in America, was respected by the observant Jews. They were observant and followed the Halacha. It is only when they officially sanctioned non-Halachik behavior that they were cut off. I will leave it to the Historians to confirm my conjecture.

14 comments:

  1. "Besides Metziut Hashem, the existence of God and Ychud Hashem, uniqueness of God, all the others are quite broad. Anthropomorphism according to Ra’avad is tolerable, exactly what is Avodah Zara depends on who one accepts Rambam or Ramban and that goes even more for the rest."

    Believing in a coroporeal God is OK, but any group that uses segulas is oved a"z! :-)

    We all have our inconsistencies.


    http://yediah.blogspot.com/2007/02/prof-menachem-kellners-maimonides.html

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  2. There is a difference between my understanding of Rambam, my own opinion of what is right and wrong and how I judge others and their opinion.

    I agree with R. David Berger that Chabad Meshichist is wrong but I do not go so far as consider them michutz lamachaneh or inferior to me. They are misguided leshitati while I am leshitatam.

    But yes a little inconsistency adds sopice to life!:-)

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  3. Indeed.

    "A foolish consistency is the
    hobgobline of little minds." Emerson

    Great article by the way. It reminds me of Joshua Yutters blog where he coins the idea of Shomer Torah.

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  4. >followed Halacha to a tee

    Sure, when they weren't bending it and changing it.

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  5. The C movement still goes through the motions of having a committee examine and 'interpret' halacha, albeit in a very different way than O Judaism. I'm not sure they would agree with the characterization that they have abandoned halacha - I think they would, disagree with your definition of the parameters of halacha. What do you make of that?

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  6. >I am no historian but I would bet that originally the conservative movement, especially here in America, was respected by the observant Jews. They were observant and followed the Halacha. It is only when they officially sanctioned non-Halachik behavior that they were cut off. I will leave it to the Historians to confirm my conjecture.

    It's difficult to either confirm or deny this, because what being halakhic meant in the 19th century in the United States is not necessarily what being halakhic means in the 21st century in the United States.

    Let's begin at the beginning: in the 19th century the terms Orthodox and Conservative were used interchangeably and basically meant "not Reformist." But by the same token, within Orthodoxy as now there were left wingers and right wingers, the divide being mostly along ethnic lines. The more Americanized and the more Western European one was, the more left wing and the less Americanized and the more East European, the more right wing.

    When the JTS was established not only was it Orthodox, by left wing American standards--but which at the time was a synonym for Conservative--but Sabato Morais, its first president, even wanted to call it the Orthodox Seminary.

    However, the JTS was sharply attacked and looked down upon by the right wing Orthodox who thought it was a krum place. (This is 15 years before Solomon Schechter came into the picture)

    On the other hand, the same way Orthodox's right wing grudginly allows that Modern Orthodox Jews are Orthodox, at least until Schechter arrived the JTS was sort of tolerated and wasn't perceived as a rabbinical school of a non-Orthodox movement--because 1) there was no movement and 2) back then there was Reform and not-Reform, not O C and R.

    But it must be stressed all along that observance and fealty to halakhah simply did not mean the same thing at the time. By today's standards these simply were not Orthodox people, for the most part. Obviously the Orthodox RW were strictly observant and obviously they might not have agreed that the LW counterparts were truly observant, but at the time no one would have said that they were mi-chutz le-machaneh.

    Eventually a movement did emerge, just as it had emerged in Central and Western Europe. But just as the Orthodox (ie, the more strictly observant) in Central and Western Europe did not approve of a third movement, and accused it of heresy and denying fundamental principles, that happened in the US too.

    True, in the early days there were some things which would be unthinkable today. Just as the left wing of Orthodox/ Conservative (remember, the same thing) in the US did not fully break with Reform, allowing moderate Reformers into their camp, people like Marcus Jastrow, even the stricter Orthodox did not fully break with Conservative at the time. For example, on one occasion Cyrus Adler was invited to address the Agudas Ha-rabbonim (Adler himself lived to see and be part of the Conservative movement, but personally never saw a difference between C and O, as was the case in his youth).

    As for its attitude towards halakhah in the early days, even though for a while it really wasn't any different than the general looser interpretation of halakhah prevalent in Orthodox/ Conservative Judaism in 19th century America, a gap began to grow between it and those observant Jews who were stricter and thus came to be called Orthodox and only Orthodox.

    And frankly, for all the fealty to halakhah back then, even allowing that being observant simply meant something different then, there are indications that something wasn't *that* halakhic in CJ, even then.

    Some examples:

    In Tradition Renewed (the history of the JTS) it mentions when mincha was instituted at the JTS (in the 1930s, I think, under the influence of Louis Finkelstein). I was shocked to learn that a rabbinical seminary didn't have a minyan for mincha for nearly 50 years!

    In Eli Ginzberg's biography of his father, Louis--a big Conservative posek--it mentions an incident with Alexander Marx when Marx asked Ginzberg if he was allowed to ride an elevator on shabbos. Ginzberg said no, so Marx took the stores--and was surprised to meet Ginzberg waiting for him. Marx said "But you said you can't ride the elevator" and Ginzberg replied "Yes, but I didn't ask."

    Perhaps a lesser example in the same book is that after he got married, his wife (from a strictly Orthodox German family) put on a sheitel, and he pretty much took it off her head and told her not to wear it and so she didn't.

    I know there are lenient shittos regarding head covering, and perhaps Ginzberg honestly held that way, but I am unaware that he ever gave such justification.

    Another example: the book says that he didn't answer the telephone on shabbos, but he allowed his wife to. On one occasion he did take a phone call. But the reason he didn't use the phone was because he didn't use the phone much during the week, so he felt it in the spirit of shabbos not to.

    Even allowing for differences in basic principles about halakhah, as Chaim B. mentions, it is one thing to be consistent within your own system and another to have this attitude. Now, I can't claim this attitude was commonplace. For example, I doubt Boaz Cohen would have done that. And there are also Orthodox rabbonim who sometimes act in ways which are not consistent with Orthdox values. But I suppose here the C movement is put into a bit of a box simply because it is a movement. If it turns out some Chassidishe rebbe isn't so savory, I'm not sure how that reflects on the yeshivishe velt. If it turned out that a rosh yeshiva totally does not observe the laws of motzi shem ra, I don't think that says anything about Chassidim. But C, being a movement, certainly should have to explain why a great C posek, L Ginzberg, seems to have taken halakhah...not that seriously.

    On the other hand, I am trying not to make the mistake of criticizing C on O grounds. Nevertheless, these kinds of things go back to the early 20th century, so I think its fair to say that once it was clear that there was a C movement, there was little respect by observant O Jews for them.

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  7. S. Thank you for a thorough review. In response to both you and Chaim B. the issue is really whether they would ignore a clear halacha midina degemara. I am not talking about even electricity which can be argued away, but real melachot like being Matir to keep the business open on shabbat and being there, travelling chutz letchum, kashrut issues (not chumrot but ikkarim like bassar bechalav).

    I know that nowadays all these things are sanctioned, if not by all rabbis, by a great percentage.

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  8. This article and all of the comments are great articulations of the base problem of legitimacy. What represents a strain of Judaism that is legitimate.

    Aryeh Kaplan had an interesting take on this in his Handbook of Jewish Thought were he states

    It is God's will that there exist a certain degree of uniformity in Jewish practices, as well as in the interpretation of the Law. It is thus written, "There shall be one Torah and one law for you" (Numbers 15:16).

    He then goes on to propose the idea that whatever Klal Yisrael generally agree with in their time is legitimate...and I quote:

    "God therefore granted the Jewish people as a whole a sort of collective Divine Inspiration so that they would be able to recognize the correct opinion in questions of Torah law. Therefore, when there is any question, it is ultimately decided on the basis of what becomes common practice. Hence, when a decision is accepted as a general custom, it becomes universally binding.

    Therefore, any practice, decision or code that is universally accepted by the Jewish people is assumed to represent God's will and is binding as such."

    There is a serios problem with this view. Since Halacha considers all people born of a Jewish mother to be Jews, it can be argued that the majority of Jews are non-orthodox and therefore they represent Gods will. Obviously the solution to this problem is for the more frum groups to claim to be klal yisrael (which they do) and therefore deny the other groups legitimacy. Its all pretty complicated.

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  9. David S that is an interesting perspective. However I disagree respectfully with R. Aryeh Kaplan if he was talking about Halacha. I suspect that he was talking about what I would call meta-halacha. I would count in that halachot like negel vasser, waiting from meat to dairy and other such dinim. That is why I made the differentiation between Dina Degemara and other things. A good way of knowing what is such is looking at Rambam in the MT. He tells us clearly when it is not. In those halachot therev is no leeway and unless one disagrees with his understanding of the conclusion of a sugya and has support from Rishonim, it is quite immutable until we have Sanhedrin again. Denying anybody's legitimacy while he complies with the above is plain and simple wrong in my opinion. But as we all know it is only an opinion.

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  10. "David S that is an interesting perspective. However I disagree respectfully with R. Aryeh Kaplan if he was talking about Halacha. I suspect that he was talking about what I would call meta-halacha. I would count in that halachot like negel vasser, waiting from meat to dairy and other such dinim. That is why I made the differentiation between Dina Degemara and other things. A good way of knowing what is such is looking at Rambam in the MT. He tells us clearly when it is not. In those halachot therev is no leeway and unless one disagrees with his understanding of the conclusion of a sugya and has support from Rishonim, it is quite immutable until we have Sanhedrin again. Denying anybody's legitimacy while he complies with the above is plain and simple wrong in my opinion. But as we all know it is only an opinion"


    There's an old story that R Yonason Eibeshutz was asked by a goy why Jews don't follow Xianity, when the torah says acharei rabim l'hatos. He answered that acharei rabim l'hatos is in a case of safek, not when one is certain. (Agreeing with the thrust of your remark)

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  11. Clearly there is a dividing line that is being drawn here. Thus far and no farther. "Beyond the Pale" represents a physical border. My point is that history (and any faith that claims a historical faith claim) is decided by the victors. It may well be that had the Sanhedrin not been disbanded, they may have very well legislated a very different Judaism than we know today. Certainly, had the Temple not been destoyed we would have had a vastly different history.

    We cannot separate Judaism from its history and therefore cannot suggest that somehow there is an elemental platonic "perfect form" Judaism that we just need to pluck from the air.

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  12. Hi David,
    I was trying to sent a comment on your post,but it woudn't publish it.
    Each time it gives "Security information.This page contains secure info. do you want to see etc.yes,no .more info"

    Anyhow,the gist of my question is:
    If like you say that what constitutes a Jew is his adherence to Halacha & not hashkafah,then let's take the following example.
    A Jew who accepts the authority of the Talmud & halachah,is very observant & at the same time accepts Jesus as his savior,believes in his resurrection & his second coming.He doesn't believe that he abrogated the Torah or that he is the son of God.(there were & are Christians who have such beliefs).
    Would you say that,since he is a shomer mitsvot,he is a bona fide Jew?
    Regards,
    Yitschak

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  13. you are describing a chabad meshichist!;-) If he just believes without a ma'aseh like hishtachvayah to a tzelem for example that he is mashiach he probably is considered a Jew however if he sees Jesus as the son of god he is over on ychud hashem and becomes a mumar..

    Hashkafah does not a Jew make, though it makes a ben olam haba. Olam haba to my understanding is the natural effect of yediat Hashem. The amount of yediah is comensurate with the level Olam Haba one experiences. Mitat Neshika is the ultimate experience one can have of Olam Haba. Note the fascinating paralel of Mitat Neshika and Peh el peh adaber bo.

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  14. The idea that observant Jews define halacha is right our of Solomon Shechter's concept of Catholic Israel. With the expanding acceptance of freedom of conscience in the outside world and fading away of the idea of communal uniformity, that idea is also fading away; I don't believe that we will see it resurrected, not even by YCT.

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